"Kona Shock" hits hard. You can see it in the wide, glassy eyes of some tourists arriving on the ultra-sunny Kona Coast on the west side of the Big Island of Hawaii...
NORTH KOHALA, Hawaii “Kona Shock” hits hard. You can see it in the wide, glassy eyes of some tourists arriving on the ultra-sunny Kona Coast on the west side of the Big Island of Hawaii.
This isn’t the Hawaii of their dreams, the lush green fantasy islands of “Hawaii 5-0,” the Bali Hai of “South Pacific” or the surf and sand of “Blue Crush.”
This is Kona. Hot. Dry. Brown. Vistas of lava flows. The moon with palm trees.
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Hordes of sun worshippers love it. Vacations are never rainouts in a place where the annual precipitation count struggles to break the 10-inch mark.
But for those hit with Kona Shock, it’s what the surf-shack crowd would call “a major down.” Luckily, the antidote is just a short drive north up a dead-end road to wet, windy North Kohala.
Sticking out like a hitchhiker’s thumb at the top of the Big Island, North Kohala is the anti-Kona. No great beaches, no megaresorts, no Robert Trent Jones-designed golf courses. Just a few funky old ex-plantation towns, art galleries, tiny missionary churches and Buddhist fellowship halls.
Most of all, it rains. Not cats and dogs or sheets and buckets. Just a steady wet film that falls so slowly you think you can see the drops sparkling in the tropical sun. It will be over in a minute and start again in five.
“You can tell the visitors they’re the ones sticking their head out the door and saying to each other, ‘Oh, it’s raining again,’ ” said Gerda Medeiros, owner of Aunty’s Place in Hawi. “It’s always raining. You might as well say, ‘Oh, I’m breathing again.’ “
North Kohala is on a dead-end road, a place that has to be sought out, not passed through. It’s an older, slower Hawaii. Ramshackle fresh fruit stands, offering small tropical bananas, sliced coconut and bundles of delicate shell ginger flowers, dot the route. Many of the stands have honor boxes: Take what you want and leave payment to be collected later.
Eventually the road runs smack into Pololu Valley Lookout, a promontory overlooking the towering mountain walls scalloped by centuries of wind and rain. A steep trail leads down to a rocky beach, where Hawaiians once landed canoes as they made the journey to the seven northern valleys where villagers could grow taro, sheltered by the cliffs and the sea from outside invaders.
Unless you’re ready for an arduous hike across the peaks, there is only one way out back the way you came.
Between the fork in the road and the end-of-the-road guardrail that keeps cars from driving into the sea is a string of small towns and shops. There’s little in the classic sense of tourist attractions or activities. North Kohala is mostly about slowing down to a pace of life that has all but disappeared, even in Hawaii.
The hub is the former sugar plantation town of Hawi, a three-block-long stretch of storefronts where the coastal Highway 270 intersects with mountain-hugging Highway 250.
The town hasn’t changed much since the clapboard and tin were hammered together in the early days of the 20th century. It was once home to the Kohala Sugar Co., complete with its own narrow-gauge railroad to take the sweet stuff down to the harbor at Mahukona.
Filipinos, Chinese and Japanese came to work in the mills. The competition for their souls is seen in the many nearby churches and temples in the area.
St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, a tiny white clapboard house of worship, is surrounded by graves of early 20th-century parishioners. Nearby is St. Paul’s in Kapaau, a white wood church with blue trim. Birds of paradise flank the staircases, near a small sign noting that the church was built in 1889. The graveyard carries the names of the German surnamed missionaries and their mostly Chinese converts.
The sugar train stopped running in 1945. The port shut in 1955. The last mill was shuttered in 1975. The elderly ex-sugar workers now share the town with artists, aging hippies and other end-of-the-road types who have opened galleries and coffeehouses to help pay for life in their new Eden.
Others have turned the dormant sugar-industry infrastructure into a new kind of adventure travel. Groups run inflatable kayaks down portions of old plantation irrigation ditches. Paddlers float through dripping-wet stone tunnels and have to lie on their backs as they pass under wood planks atop an elevated trestle.
All-terrain vehicle and jeep tours take visitors to Kauhola Point Lighthouse or up into the overgrown former farmland. For a quieter exploration, guided horseback expeditions allow visitors to play paniolo the Hawaiian word for cowboy. The rides follow old Hawaiian paths that crisscross the onetime home of kings.
From Hawi on, it’s a dead-end run. The highway snakes past plantation homes of low stilts and clumps of red and purple bougainvillea to Kapaau. It’s a small town but hard to miss a large statue of Kamehameha the Great, the warrior king who united all the islands in 1810, beckons with outstretched hand from in front of the old courthouse. Kamehameha was born nearby at a site revered by native Hawaiians.
North Kohala is home to the Bond Estate, one of the last great 19th-century estates that haven’t been carved up by Hawaii’s rampant development. The grounds feature the early homestead house, a former school for girls and Kalahikiola Church the “church of the life of the sun” erected in 1855 by the Rev. Elias Bond.
The old New England-style courthouse has faded pictures of local boys who died in America’s wars. Most are from the famed 442 Regimental Combat Team, the World War II unit that became one of the most decorated in U.S. history.
The team was made up primarily of Japanese Americans who volunteered as a way to show their loyalty to their country at a time when their country was caught up in a frenzy of spy hunting that led to mass internment of Japanese. Along with receiving an unusual number of citations, the unit suffered a high rate of casualties.
“Did you see how young they were?” said Molly Moniz, a senior citizen manning a card table at the town’s museum. “Good boys, such beautiful boys. So sad.”
Moniz sat with her friend Maria Garcia. When asked their age, they laughed until tears ran down the crinkles around their eyes.
“Just say that we have been here more than 50 years,” Garcia said.
Visitors were huffing and puffing from the heat and humidity, but the two ladies carried themselves with a cool that came from more than half a century apiece of living in the sweatbox environment. They now spend their days telling visitors to slow down a bit, linger on the porch, maybe take a stroll. It’s possible to see all the sites of North Kohala in an afternoon. That’s a pity.
“Everybody is in such a hurry,” Moniz said. “Slow down. Smell the air. That is what I love. The air is so clean and clear. Why don’t you sit down?”